Last week, my 10 year-old step-son Matthew and I were discussing my life’s journey and how, with God’s help, some determination, and a lot of hard work (and a dash of luck), I was able to go from being a farm girl who lived down a washboard dirt road in rural Bradentucky to an attorney in metropolitan Orlando.  I told him about the field trip I took to the county courthouse when I was 8 years old and how it sparked my interest in the law, how I got my first job as a high-school part-timer at my local prosecutor’s office, how I put myself through college and law school, and how I returned to my home town for a short time to work as a prosecutor before taking the leap into a federal clerkship and the law firm practice that followed.  My intent in telling Matthew this story was to encourage him to follow his dreams.  I then asked Matthew what he wants to be when he grows up, and that’s when our conversation took a more serious turn.  “I am going to be an Olympian,” Matthew declared matter-of-factly.  My response was something like, “No, seriously, what do you want to be?”  Thus began a heated conversation between me — the killjoy, Debbie Downer, step-monster — and my sweet, naive step-son.

You see, I’m a dreamer but I’m also a realist.  Yes, I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up, which seemed like a nearly impossible feat on its own considering no one in my family had ever gone to college, much less graduate school.  I didn’t insist, however, that I would go to Harvard Law School, graduate first in my class, and work in the White House.  I explained to Matthew the long odds of ever becoming an Olympian and how the great majority of athletes do not make the Olympic team, despite immense personal sacrifice and singular devotion to their chosen sport.  The more I tried to explain to Matthew the statistical improbability of becoming an Olympian and the need to have a more realistic aspirational goal (such as a collegiate athlete who competes in regional or national track competitions), the more discouraged and defiant he became.   “I am going to be an Olympic track star and everyone knows it and believes it, except you!”

Now, at this point in my story, you are probably thinking one of two things.  If you are like me, you’re thinking, “Better to let the boy down easy so he won’t set himself up for inevitable failure.” But, if you are of a different mind, you are probably thinking, “Anything is possible. You don’t know the future.  Who are you to dash a young boy’s dream?”

All of this got me thinking.  I did some research on the odds of a high-school student becoming a track and field Olympian and the odds are something like 1 in 9,000 according to one article I read. 1 in 9,000!  That might as well be one in a gazillion as far as I’m concerned.  Still, I get where Matthew’s head is at.  I really do.  In addition to wanting to be a lawyer when I grew up, I also wanted to be a French interpreter to the United Nations and study at the Sorbonne.  As an adult, my ultimate dream is to be a published author and see my book on the New York Times Bestsellers List, but I know the odds are 999 to 1 against it.   That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop writing or stop dreaming of seeing my book on a library shelf, but I’m not going to stake my self-worth on something largely outside of my control.

So, what should we do?  Should we encourage a child’s dream to become a famous rock star or professional athlete?   Or, should we explain to a child the challenges he will face and suggest that he aspire to a more likely, less lofty alternative in his field of interest?   I don’t know what the answer is, but my conversation with Matthew has definitely given me food for thought.  In my defense, my heart was in the right place.  I hope I did not undermine my good intentions by being too pragmatic.  The harsh reality is that everyone’s dreams do not come true.  If they did, I would know a whole lot of veterinarians and marine biologists and a busload of astronauts and Hollywood stars.  I don’t know a single one.  But maybe, just maybe, one day my step-son will be an Olympian.

Matthew leading the way in track.

Madison after completing her first race.

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